Puerto Rico earthquake aftermath deepens as govt seeks help

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National Guardsmen begin to install a government shelter at the municipal stadium in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. More than 250,000 Puerto Ricans remained without water on Wednesday and another half a million without power, which also affected telecommunications. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

SAN JUAN – More than 2,000 people in shelters. Nearly one million without power. Hundreds of thousands without water.

The aftermath of a 6.4-magnitude earthquake that killed one person, injured nine others and severely damaged infrastructure in Puerto Rico’s southwest coast is deepening as the island’s government says it is overwhelmed.

Many in the affected area are comparing the situation to Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that hit in September 2017, as hundreds of families who are unable to return to their damaged homes wonder where they’ll stay in upcoming weeks and months as hope fades of electricity being restored soon.

“We have to remain outside because everything inside is destroyed,” said 84-year-old Brunilda Sánchez, who has been sleeping outdoors in a government-supplied cot in the southwest coastal town of Guánica. “We don’t know how long we’ll have to stay here.”

U.S. President Donald Trump declared an emergency in Puerto Rico several hours after Tuesday’s quake hit, a move that frees up federal funds via the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency for things ranging from transportation to medical care to mobile generators. But some local officials worry the help won’t arrive soon enough.

“FEMA is a very bureaucratic agency and it moves very slowly. So slowly that we're still waiting for federal funds from Maria,” Daniel Hernández, director of generation for Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority, told The Associated Press.

He said FEMA has already pledged to bring mobile generators to bolster the company’s biggest plant, which is located near the island’s southern coast where the quake hit and is severely damaged. Hernández said it’s unclear how quickly the plant can be repaired, noting that a damage assessment is ongoing, although some officials estimated it could take up to one year to repair.

Complicating efforts to restore power are strong aftershocks, with more than 40 earthquakes with a 3.0-magnitude or higher occurring since Tuesday’s quake, according to experts. Every time it shakes, personnel have to evacuate and further damage to the plant’s infrastructure is feared, Hernández said.